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Witness to Tiananmen Square uprising yearns to return to more open China

The anonymous voice droned warnings through the public address system as Lai Shouliang faced the Chinese army.

Students, go home.

But the thousands of students who had packed Beijing's Tiananmen Square for weeks refused to budge even as soldiers massed for battle. Gunfire pierced the air throughout the night, and before sunrise on June 4, 1989 — 20 years ago today — soldiers had reclaimed the square. With each pop that night, the 21-year-old Lai knew he might die.

When the assault was finished, four of Lai's classmates were among the hundreds dead. Defeated, the survivors trudged home past the puddled blood of their fellow protesters. Burned-out buses and bicycles that had been mangled beneath tank treads littered Beijing's streets.

"The military is a force for the country, that defends the country," Lai says. "It defends the country from external enemies."

Whether they liked it or not, Lai and his fellow protesters were perceived by the state as enemies. Consequently, Lai had been transformed: from an aspiring leader to someone who wondered if the police would seek him out.

Twenty years later, Lai, now working in solar equipment production, sits in his north Tampa home, puffing Camel cigarettes. He considers the meaning of a day that came to symbolize for the world China's unbending authoritarianism.

China has changed since the uprising in Tiananmen Square. Once shackled by Mao's communist tenets, China's economy is now the world's third-largest. But politically the changes have been less extreme. Open debate about Tiananmen is taboo, and China maintains an official silence about the rebellion.

For Lai, the government's stance toward the demonstrators is a continuing wound that he likens to a family rift. The relationship may be strained, he says, but it can never break.

• • •

As a top student at Tsinghua University — China's equivalent to MIT — Lai was groomed for success. He had aced the gaokao, China's all-important university entrance exam.

Lai's success was a point of pride for his family, farmers in the country's heartland. They knew landing a spot at Tsinghua was a fast track to political or academic prestige. Lai even dreamed of becoming China's president.

Lai's path to Tiananmen began almost a year and half before the uprising, when he told a classmate he might visit the famous square on New Year's Day. There were small student protests at the time. Late that night the Communist Party head of Lai's department woke him to question him about his plan. Lai was a top student. Why take any chances?

Lai wasn't opposed to the party, but he did support greater intellectual freedom. Once he had hung a poster at the university's dining hall that expressed disapproval of an editorial in the Party's newspaper.

At first, the 1989 protests that would culminate in the Tiananmen uprising weren't about democracy, Lai says. They began as a memorial to Hu Yaobang, a former government leader who had been pushed out for his reformist views. Hu's death from a heart attack in April had sparked a call to end censorship and corruption.

If we don't speak out, who will speak out? the students chanted. They had a duty as privileged citizens to speak for society, Lai says. But as students from across China flocked to Beijing, Party officials perceived that some of the protesters wanted more than freedom of speech. They wanted democracy.

Lai didn't want to topple the government. On one occasion he explained to a soldier that the students were patriots. "We do this because we love this country."

Lai stayed in China to study for a couple of years after Tiananmen, but when he wanted to pursue a Ph.D., he chose to come to the United States. It was a chance to study on the cutting edge. Over time he came to appreciate the intellectual freedom that he had always wanted in China.

Lai is middle-aged now. A few wrinkles creep across his brow. He wears Polo shirts and drinks Samuel Adams beer. Some friends call him American. Lai says he's Chinese.

Although his wife and two children are U.S. citizens, Lai's emotional attachment to China remains strong enough that he chooses not to seek citizenship.

• • •

One day recently, Lai and his 10-year-old son flipped through an old photo album of his school days. Lai explained the significance of that day in Tiananmen Square. Students lost control, he says, but set a precedent for progress.

Hongling Han-Ralston, a Tampa lawyer who studied in Beijing in the mid 1990s, sees evidence of change every day. Economic progress comes first, says Han-Ralston, who specializes in international business transactions. The government's political grip has loosened with economic reform, she says.

Even so, officials in Beijing weren't taking any chances Wednesday as the anniversary began. Known dissidents were kept away from Beijing. Security in the square was heightened.

"All the focus is on economic life," Han-Ralston says. "Today, with all the economic reform, all the freedom, all these new things coming in, that's the focus." Ordinary people aren't thinking about democracy, she says.

Lai thinks that social reform will come gradually as interaction with the West promotes independent thinking. And the ascendancy of China's Tiananmen generation — the newest political and business leaders — will have its effects, too.

But for now, Lai, who as a young man dreamed of being president, remains half a world away from the place he risked his life trying to change.

He could go back if he chose, and he has visited. He even took his children to Tiananmen a few years ago, showing them the spot where he spent that night.

On one trip, Lai talked to students at his former high school. Their China — the technologically savvy, confident, economic powerhouse — isn't the one Lai left almost two decades ago.

"The job is going to fall on your shoulders," he told the students. To continue China's reform is to think independently, he said.

When he finished, the students applauded politely. He's not sure they believed him.

Brian Spegele can be contacted at

Witness to Tiananmen Square uprising yearns to return to more open China 06/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 4, 2009 3:07am]
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